Nurses must play a central role in delivering digital transformation

From the Frontline – a semi-regular series of blogs featuring independent thought leadership and comment from a range of leaders that span the healthcare industry.

It’s worth remembering the value nurses bring to healthcare through fantastic patient care and also as the UK’s most trusted profession . Given this status nurses have a central role to play in the successful adoption of the digital transformation needed in health and social care. 

Evolving the role and skills of nurses and midwives

Since beginning my role as National Chief Nursing Information Officer (CNIO) for NHS England in May 2020, I’ve worked tirelessly to promote the voice of nurses and midwives to ensure new technologies meet their needs and incorporate the ideas from frontline clinical practice into digital transformation projects, to ultimately serve patients better. The CNIO role brings together clinicians, management, IT professionals and technology vendors and has a critical part to play as NHS England transforms how health and social care work together.

In the last 3 years, during difficult circumstances, I’ve established Regional CNIO posts and encouraged Trusts to appoint CNIOs and set up regional Chief Nursing Information Officer networks to support these leaders. Now according to our 2022 Annual Digital Nursing Assessment 83% of Trusts have a recognised digital nurse leader in place.

We’ve also published guidance on ‘What Good Looks Like’ in digital transformation – but there is still more to do to ensure the profession’s voice is heard and the skills and career potential of nurses and midwives continue to be developed.

Ensuring nurses and midwives are empowered to practice and lead in a digitally-enabled health and social care system, now and in the future. Is fundamental to ensuring nurses and midwives are fully supported by digital technology and data science.

I am thrilled to have led a review to examine this issue, and this will highlight the actions needed to shape the nursing and midwifery workforce for the future, and is scheduled to be published later this year. [Once the Review is published this sentence can be updated with a link to the Review]

What nurses and midwives can bring to digital transformation

Nurses and midwives are at the forefront of adopting and using digital solutions directly with patients. They are in a unique position to report back on how digitally-enabled workflows, applications and devices perform in practice and how they impact workloads. They also face the growing expectations of a population used to apps and devices which are simple to use, always available and can integrate data and workflows. As the most trusted profession they need the understanding to explain how digital healthcare processes work and reassure increasingly tech-savvy patients that they are being treated safely, efficiently and with data security and auditability.

It is imperative we continue to train the frontline, not only to get the most from the digital solutions being introduced, but also to have the knowledge to give meaningful input into how solutions are designed and provide feedback on how they can be fine-tuned once in the implementation phase.

Developing Entrepreneurial Nurses

It is an important part of my role to ensure nurses and midwives can reach their full potential and the NHS gets the most from the individuals in the profession whatever skills profiles and career aspirations they develop. Increasingly we need to identify and support Entrepreneurial Nurses who can be at the heart of digital transformation.

Such individuals are registered nurses who also possess the skills and mindset of an entrepreneur. They will have a strong desire and knowledge to identify and create new opportunities. They will use their clinical knowledge, expertise and frontline experience to develop innovative solutions that put patient needs back at the centre of integrated health and social care provision. They will have the confidence to push back when needed and give constructive feedback to colleagues and IT vendors so that solutions continue to improve.

Some Entrepreneurial Nurses may choose to develop their careers driving innovations which create new processes, products, services, apps or devices that improve the delivery of healthcare. They may even spend some time in the private sector or start their own businesses.

How IT vendors can better support the profession

When asked most solution providers will confidently state that they have listened to the views of the profession, but when pushed for real world examples these will be drawn mostly from nurse and midwife feedback given during the solution implementation phase only.

Vendors can better support nurses by proactively encouraging their involvement in the whole digital transformation process from solution selection, procurement, and design through to the implementation of new systems and workflows. In this way vendors will better understand the needs of nurses and midwives, and their feedback from patients, from the outset, rather than waiting until the implementation phase when decisions have been made and the option to explore potential innovations has disappeared. Technology vendors should also foster an environment for effective dialogue, encouraging NHS CIOs to involve nurses and midwives more widely.

Some IT providers, such as Imprivata, are creating a role in their organisations which mirrors the CNIO role. They are employing nursing professionals to work as a bridge to nurses and midwives and to use their own experience and the feedback they receive to influence the design, development and implementation of solutions which enable digital transformation. This is an encouraging trend.

Our profession needs to foster closer connections with IT vendors both directly with individual businesses and through technology trade bodies such as techUK. CNIOs and Entrepreneurial Nurses can be the main contact points with the tech sector but we need to make all nurses and midwives aware of new technology developments and ensure they are confident to share ideas and give feedback. I see it as an important part of my role to dispel any nervousness of working with vendors. It is important for us to enable mature conversations and collaboration based on mutual respect as the returns from successful digital transformation projects are so important for the workforce and patients.

Follow Professor Natasha Phillips here:
Twitter: @NHSCNIO
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